Immigration minister Chris Bowen has decided to close the Pontville refugee detention centre in Tasmania by March 1. The move is in keeping with the government’s original plan to operate the centre for only six months.
Last month, about 150 asylum seekers held in Pontville started a hunger strike to demand they be released into the community. At least three were hospitalised.
On February 16, Unions Tasmania secretary Kevin Harkins released a statement calling on Tasmanian’s to rally on February 25 to keep the detention centre open.
He said: “While I don’t support mandatory detention it is true that in Tasmania we do it better than others. The interaction between visiting volunteers and the refugees has been productive for all.
“The financial benefits for the community are obvious and the jobs it has created are gold, particularly at this time where jobs are being lost across the state in the public service and forest industry.”
The Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support group has also campaigned to keep the centre open, saying it would be damaging to move the asylum seekers again and disrupt the ties to volunteers, counsellors and lawyers they had established.
Brighton Mayor Tony Foster and Anglican Bishop John Harrower have also lobbied the minister to keep the centre open. A newly formed Tasmanian branch of Labor for Refugees also joined the campaign.
The Hobart Mercury said on February 20 that the Labor for Refugees group, convened by former state education minister Lin Thorp and lawyer Madeline Ogilvie, “will call for the centre to remain open, the model to be re-examined and for the fences to be removed”.
But on February 20, Unions Tasmania released a statement that called off the planned rally to keep Pontville open: “After discussion between groups working with the Pontville refugees, it has been decided not to proceed with the rally this Saturday.”
Socialist Alliance members have been among those visiting the asylum seekers in Pontville and speaking up about the damaging impact that detention has been having on the mental health of asylum seekers.
Socialist Alliance Tasmania released a statement on February 23 that called for Pontville to be closed and for asylum seekers to be released into the community while they await their claims.
The statement said: “The Socialist Alliance supports the closure of the Pontville Detention Centre because we oppose the mandatory detention of refugees. We call on the federal government to close down all the other detention centres and house the asylum seekers in the community while their claims are being processed.
“We are happy that some asylum seekers who were detained in Pontville have had their claims processed and have been granted refugee status and released into the community.
“However, more needs to be done to process the remaining asylum seeker applications and to support refugees in the community. The longer the process is drawn out, the more that the asylum seekers suffer.
“We have a responsibility under international law to accept asylum seekers and the government needs to change its whole policy to ensure human rights are upheld instead of being trampled over.
“Jobs for refugees and other Tasmanians and regional economic stimulation can be created by increasing funding to the public service to create socially-useful jobs like education, health, housing construction and public transport — we do not support the idea of creating jobs by locking other people up.”